About two months ago, seated on a small airplane that was descending through a lightning storm on its way to land in Florence, Italy, I was 90 percent certain I was going to die.
My terror only lasted about 10 minutes—from the moment I saw the first flash in the dark outside the tiny window, through a half-dozen weightless-feeling, heart-stopping lurches, until the wheels touched down on the runway.
Which is to say, it was nothing compared to what the residents of Hawaii felt earlier this year when one click of the wrong button at a local government office sent warning of an imminent ballistic missile in an all-caps text message to everyone within state limits.
The mistake went uncorrected for 38 minutes—minutes in which, as a close friend who happened to be there for a wedding later told me, people did what anyone would do: panic and try to take shelter, yes, but also attempt to make peace with the inconceivable notion that there, on a previously unremarkable Saturday in January, they were about to die. Unable to assess the legitimacy of the threat, my friend called her parents and told them she loved them, then she and a few other wedding attendees headed for the beach. At the very least, they decided, they would die somewhere beautiful.
I can’t be alone in hitting a wall of cognitive dissonance when I try to think about death: it’s universal, an equalizer, one of the few absolute inevitabilities about the experience of being human (along with taxes, har har). And yet it’s also so personal, and unknowable: especially for those of us who don’t practice a religion with a sure-footed concept of the afterlife, what actually happens when we leave this mortal coil is the ultimate in unavoidable question marks. All of which makes it fantastically appealing to try to avoid the topic entirely—particularly if you live somewhere, like, say, America, that worships youth and the young.
But if the uptick in death-themed workshops and events geared toward young people is any indication, avoiding the topic of death is no longer working for a vast number of people.
“It’s a really a whole movement we’re seeing, in which people are asking different questions, having new conversations, saying they’re not satisfied with how death has been treated in our culture—which is, of course, to push it aside until you can’t anymore,” says Chelsea Coleman, a singer-songwriter and co-host of You’re Going to Die, an ongoing performance series in which participants are invited to share stories and songs about grief and loss. Coleman hosts the series’ first Oakland event this Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the Starline Social Club.
Founded in San Francisco in March 2009 by the writer Ned Buskirk, “YG2D” began as a monthly community open mic at the intimate, now-defunct venue Viracocha; it didn’t take long for the event to start regularly selling out. Buskirk soon restructured the night to highlight featured musicians at each event, eventually asking Coleman to join him as co-host.
Coleman attended her first event in 2012, shortly after the death of her grandfather, with whom she was very close. “I was with him when he died, and I wrote songs about it, so I was looking for an outlet to perform some heavy stuff,” says Coleman. “Often when you play at a bar, it’s like—sure, you can play songs about heartbreak, but ‘Here’s a song about my grandpa dying' is really not the vibe most places.”
She was hooked after one show. “It was such a powerful space,” says Coleman. “Hearing other people speak and perform is always moving, but I also felt like what I was offering had more power there. In the past I had sometimes felt like what I was doing was a burden."
"But people show up [at YG2D] because they want to have an emotional experience," she says. "That changes everything."
You’re Going To Die became a registered nonprofit in 2017. The organization has expanded swiftly in the last two years, forging new partnerships with prisons—including workshops and shows at San Quentin—and with hospice programs, in which volunteers visit with people who are dying to hear stories, and to write or play music with them. The events are spreading geographically as well, with workshops or shows planned for San Diego, Ohio and New York in the coming months.
In doing so, the nonprofit joins organizations like The Dinner Party, a grief support network for 20- and 30-somethings that began as a series of informal potlucks in LA; the network now includes meetups in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C. and New York. Death Salon, meanwhile, hosts pop-up events of academic discussion and performance organized by a group of medical historians, artists and funeral industry professionals who've positioned themselves at the forefront of the Death Positive Movement.
It's tough, as an American, not to wonder if there's some correlation between the growing call for such conversations and the events of the past two years—when macabre jokes about our president's access to nuclear buttons have become part of daily life: one part gallows humor, two parts very real fear.
But for a vast number of Americans, of course, the reality of death is perhaps no closer than it ever felt before: black men and women contend with the reality that they might be killed every time they step out the door, for actions as simple as walking, driving or taking BART. When a former coworker of mine, an activist and health care worker who was also a trans woman, died earlier this year, I felt (along with sadness for her family and close friends) a small sting of resignation: the numbers don't lie.
Coleman has a sense, however, that those not previously accustomed to considering death may have been moved in that direction by the "heightened" state of U.S. politics since 2016.
"I think a lot of people who have had the privilege of being in denial for a long time are starting to ask questions," she says, as I flash on my brief lightning storm-induced terror. "A lot of communities haven't had that privilege."
Regardless of the timing, "I think things feel heavy right now for pretty much everyone, and it's very clear to me that people are hungry for these kinds of conversations," says Coleman, recalling the first YG2D event she hosted solo, without Buskirk. "I was nervous people weren't going to want to talk, but from the moment we started, everyone wanted to tell stories."
Oh, and keep that in mind if you're heading to your first YG2D, as well. Coleman says some of the most powerful performances come from people who weren't planning on performing. While the event has morphed over the years, the open-mic portion still makes up its bones. Audience members who've never sung or told stories publicly before quite frequently take the stage.
In other words, there's perhaps something universal happening there as well. What would I do if I had 38 minutes to live? For a topic so commonplace, so obvious and so inevitable, people surprise themselves all the damn time.
You're Going to Die's first Oakland event starts at 7:30pm this Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the Starline Social Club. Details here.
Emma Silvers is a writer living in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.